Background: The aim of this study was to investigate attention orienting triggered by another's gaze direction in autism.
Method: Twelve high-functioning children with autism and gender- and age-matched normal control children were studied using two tasks. In the first task, children were asked to detect laterally presented target stimuli preceded by centrally presented facial cue stimuli in which gaze was either straight ahead or averted. The direction of the cue was either congruent, neutral, or incongruent with respect to the laterality of the target stimulus. In the second task, children were asked to discriminate the direction of eye gaze.
Results: The results showed that another person's static gaze direction triggered an automatic shift of visual attention, both in children with autism and in normally developing children. The children in both groups were also able to overtly discriminate the direction of the gaze.
Conclusion: These results seem to suggest that, in children with autism, the visual system processes information about another person's gaze direction and sends this information to those areas that subserve reflexive attention orienting. However, future studies are needed to investigate whether the processing of eyes and gaze direction relies on similar neural mechanisms in children with autism and in normally developing children.